Third TEA Conference: Theory Into Practice

Before an overflow crowd at the Top of the Hill conference center, steps from the nation’s capitol, the Thorium Energy Alliance held its third national conference on May 12. Featuring some familiar figures from the thorium-power community plus some new figures – including at least three international documentary film crews – the conference, known as TEAC3, reflected both the accelerating momentum behind the effort to produce commercial energy from thorium-based reactors and the still-formidable challenges ahead.

While some of the presentations, such as Robert Hargraves’ “Aim High,” a forceful argument that thorium-based nuclear power can ward off global climate change and supply an effectively endless supply of cheap energy – had been seen at previous conferences, TEAC3 included several pieces of news. The most significant was the announcement by Kirk Sorensen, founder of this blog, that he has left his job as chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown to found a company, Flibe Energy, dedicated to building commercial liquid-fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs).

Referring to the tsunami and earthquake that heavily damaged the reactors at the Fukushima, Japan nuclear power station and that have caused many to once again question the safety of nuclear power, Sorensen declared, “A lot of people are thinking that we’ve seen the end of nuclear power. I’ve bet my own future and my family’s future that we are at the beginning of a new thorium age.”

Kirk has not disclosed details of funding for Flibe Energy (which is named for the mixture of lithium fluoride (LiF) and beryllium fluoride (BeF2) that is proposed, in molten-salt form as a coolant for LFTRs), but a Teledyne Brown executive attending the conference said that they are “fully supportive of Flibe Energy” in introductory remarks. Kirk also pointed out that, in addition to (and likely preceding) the product of commercial power, LFTRs offer several other revenue streams: in particular supply radioisotopes for medical applications. The only reactor producing medical radioisotopes in North America is due to shut down in the next three years.

While previous conferences have focused on the theory of thorium power, and on educating a skeptical or ignorant public on the possibilities of a nuclear power industry based around cheap, safe and abundant thorium, this one was focused more on practice: on solving the actual challenges ahead for building thorium power plants.

In that spirit Joe Bonometti, a nuclear engineer, veteran NASA program leader and academic with deep experience running innovative R&D projects in both the public and private sectors, gave a presentation entitled “LFTR Development: Lessons Learned.” The intent was not to lay out a single optimum technology or roadmap, Bonometti said, but to present some guidelines that apply to any effort to develop and build new technologies.

“LFTR is like an architecture class, not a specific design,” Bonometti said.

Following the theory-into-practice theme, Charles S. “Rusty” Holden, founder of Thorenco LLC, did offer a specific design: a 40MW pilot plant that he called “a little LFTR.” Using fissile uranium-235 as a source of ignition neutrons and a mix of thorium tetrafluoride in a beryllium fluoride molten salt, Thorenco’s design includes a deep salt pool with a honeycomb geometry that offers “a superior way to clean and condition the fuel during operations,” Holden said.

Also presenting was Col. Paul Roege, U.S. Army, who delivered the event’s other piece of important news. The Pentagon, Roege said, could be able and willing to offer licensing capability for companies building LFTRs or other forms of innovative nuclear power reactors. Most thorium advocates agree that the NRC is unlikely in the near term to license alternative reactor designs – even ones, like LFTRs, that have been thoroughly proven out in operation. Given the military’s need for clean, modular, transportable energy sources for forward operating bases, the swiftest routes to a license could be through the Army, which has the regulatory authority to approve new reactors for military bases without NRC involvement.

In the traditional licensing process, Roege said, “Innovative reactors are at the end of the line. That obstacle could potentially could be overcome if we pursue military applications.”

That, of course, remains a speculative prospect in itself. As TEAC3 demonstrated, however, thorium power has gained a degree of momentum that could not have been foreseen less than two years ago, when TEAC1 attracted an audience of less than three dozen people.

“When I look back at the first thorium conference, 17 months ago, it’s unbelievable to see how far we’ve come,” commented TEAC founder John Kutsch. “This is happening because it makes good business sense, because it’s important to national security and because it’s the right thing to do for our children.”



25 Replies to "Third TEA Conference: Theory Into Practice"

  • Brent
    May 22, 2011 (5:07 pm)

    I find it interesting and telling that one might have to bypass the NRC and DOE in order to license an experimental LFTR.

  • Rick Maltese
    May 22, 2011 (5:19 pm)

    Now we know licensing and funding are the real issues and that both of those hurdles have a fifty-fifty chance I'd say that is great progress. I'm encouraged considering that these obstacles were a very big hurdle just a year ago. The Fukushima event created more cause for a rescue technology. It looks like LFTR could be the one.

  • zeonglow
    May 22, 2011 (5:34 pm)

    Getting the military involved as a way to make nuclear power safer seems very ironic to me. Let us know if you post any videos of the talks.

  • Joffan
    May 23, 2011 (12:10 am)

    Excellent development in starting Flibe. Best of luck Kirk.

  • Engineer-Poet
    May 23, 2011 (10:15 am)

    The legal end-run around the NRC is something I wish I'd known about before.  It would have been good to be able to use to address the hopelessness that some people feel about the political prospects for new nukes.

    Compact and powerful reactors may not be good just for the Army, but for the Navy as well.  The smaller the ships which can use nuclear engines, the more our navy frees itself from oil tankers (and oil prices) and increases its tooth-to-tail ratio.

    Kirk, I hit you with a group mail last week.  I figure you're busy, but I hope you have time to look at it and give the list your brief thoughts.

  • Andrew Jaremko
    May 23, 2011 (12:29 pm)

    Congratulations Kirk! There's a lot of opportunity for networking all of the enthusiasts out here. @zeonglow – the Thorium Energy Alliance site is promising to post videos from the conference.

  • Lftrsuk
    May 23, 2011 (2:02 pm)

    Well done Kirk. Let's hope your courage is rewarded both financially and emotionally.

    Psst: will LFTR devotees get first refusal when the public offering is up for grabs?

  • Paul C from Austin
    May 23, 2011 (7:25 pm)

    Congrats on the new startup, Flibe- I wondered when someone might take this step, but did not figure it would occur this soon- very good! I hope you are able to find some investors with deep pockets to get this off the ground properly.

    Not sure about the name though- Flibe – I understand the logic of its origin, but from a marketing perspective…well- on the other hand, some names are defined by the product itself- "a rose by any other name…"

  • SteveK9
    May 24, 2011 (10:49 am)

    Congratulations Kirk. Every wish for success!

    Another guy I wish would start a company (or maybe he could join yours) is David LeBlanc.

  • SteveK9
    May 24, 2011 (10:52 am)

    A quick scan at the Thorenco link seems to indicate a reactor with a quite different design. This is not a molten salt reactor? Be interesting to see some comments at some point on the ideas behind this design.

  • Tim Flavin
    May 24, 2011 (11:33 am)

    Are audio or video of any of the talks going to be available? Next Big Future had links to two slide sets.

  • Roger Maddrell
    May 25, 2011 (3:56 am)

    How ironic that the path forward in the US could be through the military! Oh well, if it means it gets done then so be it. But the U.S. is going to have to act quickly now that China is onto LFTR.

    All the best Kirk for Flibe. You've put your money where your mouth is and much energy besides. May you be well rewarded.

  • Joel Riddle
    May 25, 2011 (11:08 am)


    If you read LeBlanc's slides closely, he stated that he had "gone dark" as of, I think, January of this year.

    Based on that, I would have to assume he is actively involved in some entity that is working to commercialize an MSR of some sort.

    I would like to think that he was working as part of FLiBe, but I almost doubt that is the case. LeBlanc sounded very interested in using Uranium fuel in an MSR, which could be a proper intermediate, developmental step on the pathway to eventually having a fleet of LFTRs.

    Obtaining an advantageous cost advantage from using Thorium as the primary fuel as opposed to Uranium is not going to occur for quite a long time.

    And Thorenco is definitely not an MSR design.

  • Kirk Sorensen
    May 25, 2011 (11:27 am)

    David's a great friend, but I can confirm that the "going dark" he refers to does not have anything to with Flibe Energy.

    Running liquid-fluoride reactors on low-enrichment uranium runs into challenges with the amount of uranium that you can successfully dissolve in the salt. It's one of the reasons that my enthusiasm for that approach has waned over the years.

  • Joel Riddle
    May 25, 2011 (12:56 pm)

    Thanks for the response, Kirk. If David's "going dark" had been in regards to him being involved with FLiBe, I would guess you would have obliged maintaining that "darkness". Knowing that he's working via another entity could provide some benefit of having some parallel development paths in the works, which would be a good thing (for the world, at least) as long as both entities are adequately funded.

    By "low-enrichment uranium", are you referring to the legally-defined limit of 20% enrichment that cannot be breached for commercial purposes?

  • Brent
    May 25, 2011 (7:17 pm)

    Going the military route is not necessarily easier. It just may be faster. The military may have more people to throw at the review. Defense boards are not push-overs.

  • Dominic Campbell
    May 26, 2011 (11:38 am)

    Congratulations Kirk, I wish you the best of luck on your venture. I hope you get the break you need to get this thing going, as it is of great strategic significance that we have a viable alternative to the current nuclear power generation model, as well as the 'renewable' methods, which can never be economic, in my view, given the inexorable rise in demand for energy. I think the Chinese MSR initiative is going to concentrate a few minds at home..

  • Nathan Wilson
    May 29, 2011 (3:32 pm)

    Congrats Kirk on the start of Flibe energy.

    I suggest a two prong strategy. Start with a small (100MW or so) salt cooled pebble bed reactor (e.g. Peterson's PB-AHTR), then build a larger breakeven breeding LFTR.

    Utilities will like the PB-AHTR, because it post-pones the need for a societal decision on reprocessing vs. direct waste disposal, and in fact, does not take sides on the issue. It also provides a spent fuel form that is great for very long term interim (indefinite) storage or transportation.

    When coupled with an optional thermal energy storage add-on, it's great for European countries that want to transition to renewable energy. Probably no one would ever buy this option, but offering it could have great political value (like a CO2-capture-ready coal plant).

    Investors will like a two step strategy, since it gives them a long term vision, and an easier initial product.

  • David L.
    May 29, 2011 (9:18 pm)

    Just a quick reply to a couple questions people posted regarding my "going dark" comment in my TEA presentation. In the past I have been very quick to go public with new developments in my design work (sometimes sacrificing any future IP protection). Since Oct 2010 I've been keeping some completely new developments under wraps while I fine tune things and possibly file patent protection. I am very excited about these new concepts but not quite ready to share. Sorry…

    I should also add as I usually do, I feel the future holds great promise for a multitude of MSR and/or LFTR designs from simpler versions using low enriched uranium to what is often termed the pure Th-U233 cycle. I hope to move forward on multiple fronts if possible.

    David LeBlanc

  • Dr. Mitchel W. Eisen
    May 30, 2011 (1:43 am)

    I would like some clarification about whether Thorium, which is supposed to be theoretically much safer that Uranium based reactors, is actually feasible and practical. There is some hype going around about how Thorium was not pursued because of the need to produce Plutonium for nuclear weapons, and since we do not need to do that, we can now use Thorium based reactors. It makes a very tastey story for conspiracists and enviornmentalists. The bottom line is, does Thorium produce electricity without dangerous byproducts or meltdowns not just in theory, but in practice. If we cant really get some definitive answers then the whole Thorium thing looks like pie in the sky, and maybe some kooky investment scheme pumped up by mining concerns that own alot of Thorium. If thorium is practical, the world needs it NOW! If not, then we need to pursue other modes of energy production

  • John
    May 30, 2011 (9:41 am)

    What about "CORE Energy" as a name for your startup. The core of the earth is powered by thorium, and of course there are reactor cores.

  • Paul Wick
    May 30, 2011 (10:44 am)

    Stellar Energy. Or perhaps "Star energy". Heavy radioactive elements were created in the super-nova implosion predating our solar system. I thought Wm. Tucker's title to his excellent book "Terrestrial Energy" was a nice try, but a bit mundane. With "Stellar or Star Energy" we meet the solar PR challenge. Hell, even Stardust Energy. And a tip of the hat to Hoagy Carmichael.

  • T.G.Watkins
    June 1, 2011 (3:42 pm)

    Best of luck, Kirk.
    I've been a regular visitor for some time and try to do my bit for LFTR by informing friends and colleagues at every opportunity.
    I will try and participate on Facebook.
    Regards G.

  • Jill Bayes
    June 3, 2011 (1:57 pm)

    Bio, bio Brazil
    Royal Dutch Shell has entered into a partnership with Brazil, making fuel from cane sugar. MARK AINSBOROUGH, Exec. Vice President of of Alternative Energy , talks about Shell's interest in "sustainable transportation" on his You Tube video. Shell is reducing the co2 in their product mix, he says. What would it take to get Shell interested in partnering FLIBE?

  • followersfast
    May 21, 2014 (11:48 am)

    nferences have focused on the theory of thorium power which is nice

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